Hypnosis: A Stereotyped and Misunderstood Phenomenon

Hypnosis.. something that you know of, but are not really sure about. Is it real? Is it magic? What is it really? Let's explore it together!

Act I: The Evil Hypnotist

Imagine that this is a fictional scene from a book or even a movie.

*Cue suspenseful music* :P

The scene begins on a warehouse situated by the port. The faint sound of freighters and ferries signaling their approach can be heard in the distance, in the background. The warehouse is evidently dark, with tinted windows deterring any light from entering.

In the warehouse, a woman can be seen tied up on a chair, struggling against what seemed to be ropes, tightly bound around her wrists and across her chest. The woman attempts to force her wrists out of the cruel bonds that held against her.

Just then, she's got it! She quickly unties the rest of the ropes off her body and sprints across the warehouse, making a beeline for the metal door at one end of the warehouse. She's almost there, just a few metres left and--

The sounds of a key and lock ring across the vast space of the dark warehouse. Someone was unlocking the door to the warehouse. The satisfying crunch of the lock mechanism can be heard, stopping the woman dead in her tracks. Her feet froze in terror, although instinct was telling her to run, and to only run. The metal door swings wide open, revealing a man.

The man was wearing colorful clothes, all varying in color from his slacks to his blazer. As stereotyped, he was wearing leather clad boots, a top hat, was holding a cane and always had a pocket watch with him.

He begins to swing his pocket watch like a pendulum in front of the woman's face. He then says "You will obey me" (of course he says that) in an ominous tone. The woman then appears to enter a trance, a zombie-like state, ready to obey every order and command of the hypnotist.

A False Representation

It's all too often that we see scenes like this or similar to this play out in films, books, stories, or any medium of sorts. Obviously, this representation of a hypnotist and hypnosis in general is almost, if not completely, false. But in what way?

We cannot only criticize however, we should also look for its merits (albeit not many). In the popular representation of hypnosis and hypnotism, the subjects/victims can be seen to be in a zombie-like state of absolute attentiveness where they have absolutely no free will of their own. They will obey every word and become slaves to their "masters". No matter how immoral or difficult or ambitious the task is, they will carry it out with no second thoughts.

Sure, all of it is very heavily exaggerated. We can salvage some of that however, as it just boils down to the basics; instead of having no conscience or will of their own, they actually have free will of their own. Instead of being in a state of absolute attentiveness and concentration, they actually are only in a state of focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness. And instead of obeying every order of the hypnotist, they actually are only more susceptible to respond to suggestions.

As you can see, the popular representation of hypnosis is quite far off and bears little resemblance to what hypnosis actually is. So, what exactly is it and how does it work? This article explores the many aspects of hypnosis and the art of hypnotism. Put on your top hats and let's get to it!

A State of Hyper-Attentiveness

So, we have come to an understanding that hypnosis is:

Hypnosis is a trance-like state/condition in which the human body has heightened focus and concentration, reduced peripheral awareness, and has an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion, making it hyper-attentive.

"Okay....but what does it feel like? How exactly does it work?"

Well, there is no one right answer actually. We can identify the characteristics of it, and what a person under the influence of it can and will do... but we're not so sure of why it happens and why our body responds to it in the way that it does now.

And as for how it feels like, it's like daydreaming, falling asleep and being alert at the same time. When in a hypnotic state, you feel as if you're "losing yourself", only focusing on one thing/object. It's like having tunnel vision. You solely focus only on that one object, and tune out anything else around you. At the same time, you're fully conscious and alert.

Kind of contradictory eh? How can I be both daydreaming AND alert at the same time? That's what makes hypnosis such an interesting (and ludicrous) phenomenon :D .

Okay... but why?

Hypnosis is an odd concept, to say the least. It's almost funny in a sense. Who would want to put themselves in such a position? How could one actually benefit from the effects of hypnosis?

Surprisingly, there are many applications for hypnosis! Let us take a look at some of the not-so-useful applications used in the past... ready for some trivia?

  • Military applications: Possibly in interrogations?

  • Self-hypnosis: It is claimed to help with stage fright, relaxation and mental well-being.

  • Stage hypnosis: Usually seen in acts involving an audience. I'm sure we've all seen it before: The hypnotist picks a seemingly random audience member and does all sorts of tricks. This isn't magic though; it stems from a combination of psychological factors and some real hypnotism.

  • Crime: "Evil hypnotists" can seemingly hypnotize people to give them their own hard-earned money! Believe it or not, there are actual cases of this happening. It's a weird weird world out there......

All fun and games aside, there actually is a proper use for hypnotism in the world. Ever heard of hypnotherapy?

Hypnotherapy: An Alternative Medicine

Hypnotherapy is the use of hypnosis in psychotherapy to assist in the treatment of psychological problems and disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating and sleeping disorders, compulsive gambling and cases of PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder). Not only that, it can be used to aid in pain management, to subside the sensation of pain! (It can trick your mind to feel less pain, how cool is that?)

Because of its unique characteristics, hypnosis can be used to help patients relax, lessen the sensation of pain or to facilitate and mediate a desired behavioral change/effect.

The Setting

In a typical hypnotherapy setting, the therapist (hypnotherapist) will attempt to induce a state of intense concentration alongside sensations of relaxation, security and well-being in the patient. This is usually done by mental imagery (to allow the patient to visualize and reach a state of calmness) and by talking in a gentle, soothing tone. This results in allowing the patient to feel more at home and less tense.

Once the patient is in a receptive state, they will be more open to suggestions and transformative messages. This lays the foundation for the therapist to try and introduce suggestive thoughts to help the patient accomplish their goals.

An Example: Hypnosis in Smoking Cessation

For example, let's say that the patient is a smoking addict undergoing rehabilitation. This is a typical case of using hypnosis to aid in smoking cessation. In this case, the therapist will attempt to introduce guided suggestions to help the patient weaken their desire to smoke or to strengthen their will to stop smoking.

A study was done in 2019 that investigated on the use and direct benefit of hypnotherapy in treating smoking cessation. It concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the fact that it does, and even if there was, it would only be a small benefit at most.

What's the science behind it?

As I mentioned earlier in the article, there is no plausible explanation as to why our body responds to hypnosis the way that it does right now. But how do we know that it works? Is it all just a placebo designed to deceive our minds? Is there any sort of scientific backing to argue that hypnosis at the very least, works?

Not to worry, there is! A study was done at Harvard that observed the brains of 57 people during guided hypnosis. Here were the results:

  • During hypnosis, two areas of the brain responsible for processing and controlling what goes on in our bodies showed greater activity/use .

  • At the same time, the area of the brain responsible for our actions and the area that is aware of those actions were disconnected/not very much in use during hypnosis.

To sum it up, only specific sections of the brain are altered during hypnosis, and the most affected sections are those that play a role in action control and awareness.

Should I be worried about trying hypnotherapy? Are there any side effects to it?

Don't worry :D, it's a relatively safe therapy option, should you require it. Only occasionally, mild side effects will appear, such as experiencing headaches, drowsiness and dizziness.

Act II: The Not-So-Evil Hypnotist

In the aforementioned story at the start of the article, it's clear that there are many misconceptions regarding the topic of hypnosis. We know by now that most of what we see in pop culture today is grossly exaggerated. So, armed with our newfound knowledge, let's dig into these stereotypes and bust 'em together!

1. Is hypnosis a form of mind control/brainwashing?

Of course it isn't! In fact, it's the complete opposite. The hypnotist doesn't "gain control" over the hypnotee (person being hypnotized). Rather, the hypnotee acquires better control over their own mind.

2. Wait, do hypnotists have special powers? Are they supernatural?

Again, it's all part of the deception. You might think that stage shows and acts performed by 'magicians' involving hypnosis reflects onto what hypnotherapists (Actual, licensed hypnotherapists) can do. However, they are two different things. In magic acts, they rely on deception and trickery to amaze the audience. In a proper setting with a hypnotherapist, he/she simply understands the techniques necessary to induce a state of susceptibility to suggestion, as well as to clear and relax the mind of the patient.

3. When in a hypnotic state, will I have awareness of what goes on around me? Or will I forget about it and have no memory of it?

Let's visualize a scene which I'm sure that many of you will have seen before. The hypnotist hypnotizes an unsuspecting volunteer. He makes the volunteer do all sorts of odd and funny things to please the audience. Then, when the act finishes and the hypnotist snaps the volunteer "back into reality", the volunteer has no memory or even an insight as to what just happened. It's as if he was unconscious during the entire act!

In reality, it really could not be further from the truth. As I mentioned earlier, a hypnotized person is not actually "asleep"; rather, they are induced to a state of tranquility and calmness, where in this state, they are always aware of what happens around them to a certain extent and are always alert.

The Takeaway

There's no doubt that what we see in hypnosis in the form of entertainment today is absorbing, thrilling and engaging to watch. I'm not going against how hypnosis is used in mediums today. I'm not trying to jeopardize or question the use (More like misrepresentation) of hypnosis in the field of entertainment, such as in stage shows and acts. However, I do believe that we all should at least know what's real, what isn't, and the facts behind it. Call me a stickler for accuracy and facts but the more you know, the better. There's no harm in knowing more.... right? :P

As for hypnosis itself, don't look down on it! There's still a lot to learn and explore about the science and art of hypnosis, and how it can be an advantageous tool in the medical field that just might come in handy one day.